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Wot I Think: Scribblenauts Unlimited

Scribbling, Scribbling

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Scribblenauts Unlimited has now been released in both North and South America. It’s soon out in Australia. And Europe’s not getting it until next year, and no one will say why. Sigh. And that’s a damned stupid shame, because it’s a ridiculously lovely thing, that I’d will everyone to check out. If only the could. Here’s wot I think:

When Scribblenauts Unlimited all comes together, it’s unquestionably a magical thing. Being tasked with turning a station wagon into a fire engine, I was told I needed to provide a DJ with something he could wire up to it to make it loud. A siren seemed the obvious choice, but I wondered – maybe, just maybe? I typed in the word, and yup – it offered me two choices: a traditional siren, or the alluring sea monster. Picking the second one, there appeared a winged, green-haired lady, warbling notes. I gave her to the DJ, who carried her over and attached her to the car. Done.

It seems impossible that it was planned for. But that’s always been the secret behind the awe-inspiring nature of the Scribblenauts series – you really can’t believe they’ll have thought of X, and then there’s X, living, moving, and interacting with the world. The very first time I encountered the series was at E3 2009. Everyone you spoke to said, “Have you played Scribblenauts? You have to check it out.” Wandering to Warner’s booth, this little DS game was displayed on two or three stands, hidden around the back. With a huge queue. It was as if they didn’t realise what they had.

Which was rather true of the entire game, as it happened. That first handheld release was an utterly extraordinary thing, but not that great of a game. You could write any word, but for (most) pro-nouns and rude things, and there it would appear, animated, interactive. The real game was about trying to think of things 5th Cell hadn’t thought of, and then being astonished as you watched a fight between Cthulhu and an anchiceratops. Or those moments of pure mad brilliance, like when you asked it for a werewolf, but what appeared was just a regular guy – until you realised that it was daytime in the scene. Create a moon, and ta-da, night time and there’s a beast chasing after central character Maxwell, trying to eat him. It was in the face of this extraordinary creativity and opportunity that the puzzles themselves failed.

This was addressed by the hugely superior follow-up, Scribblenauts Remix, which also threw in the ability to use adjectives. Many of the new more appropriately designed puzzles then focused around these – a “scary clown” was a very different prospect to a “friendly clown”, and each would behave differently, and have a different impact on the scene. And now, with Scribblenauts Unlimited, they’ve gone further than ever in implementing their impossible magic into a more coherent game.

Unlimited is an odd title, as if anything this is the most focused series has ever tried to be. But let me clarify – it’s not restrictive – you can still make anything, at any point, and watch the purposes of a location collapse under the awesomeness of your daft ideas. But its intentions are more focused, the challenges it presents designed to inspire you to solve specific problems, as obviously or imaginatively as you see fit. The unlimited nature is really trying to hint that the game is now set in a sprawling, open world.

Sort of. It’s 2D, side-scrolling, and you unlock wider stretches of the world by completing enough challenges in the previous areas. But each location is packed with so much to do. A visit to the small fire station not only had be build that sailor-luring fire engine, but also help out about ten other characters with mini challenges – little requests like an arsonist who just wanted help. I created him a psychiatrist, and he was able to stop setting fire to a nearby building as a result. That is splendid. He then wanted help fixing his damage, so I gave him a hammer, and he went to work, creating what the game so brilliantly labelled, a “Non-flammable orphanage”.

Upstairs in the fire station there was a second longer challenge, which triggered a zombie attack on the building. Various people needed help as a result, including a little crying orphan girl. She, I was told, was very scared. So I created her a mum.

That might actually be too lovely.

This all ended with my building a mech suit and blasting the zombies to bits. Meanwhile, an old lady in a park wanted help making the birds more attracted to her. I think she meant she wanted to interact with them, presumably expecting some bird food. But I took it slightly more literally, so created a beak. I gave it to her, she wore it, and sang songs to the birds, with whom she is now hanging out.

This is what makes Scribblenauts Unlimited quite so extraordinary. When it works. And of course that’s the curse of the series. It’s utterly magical when those moments happen, and they happen incredibly frequently. But then you’ll ask it to make you a “spray can”, and it doesn’t know what you mean, so you try it as one word, and nothing, so you just try “spray”, and it still doesn’t know what that word is. Of course it would be idiotic to expect that they’ve created something for every single word in existence, but it’s also kind of the gimmick they’re selling. When you find the gaps, as unreasonable as the expectation may be, you can’t help feeling let down. The magic takes a hit. But then you ask it for plaatkoekies, and it serves them right up. (Admittedly it’s the same graphic as you’ll get for ‘pancakes’, but you get the point.)

It’s remarkably liberal, too. One of the minigames has you helping a young gentleman prepare for a date. After getting him looking smart, he then needs a ride. So I gave him a garbage truck. Sorted. Something for a gift? A wedding ring seems appropriately inappropriate, and it’s happy with that. However, when asked to create something to make the date more romantic, it didn’t think the pink hippo I created really set the mood. Boring. A violinist then. After dinner it’s the cinema, where things start to seem a little emergent, but inevitably coincidental, as he then proposes to her (these kids move fast), and I’m now asked to create people needed for the wedding. This seems awfully sudden. Will a pink hippo be welcome? No, a pink hippo will not be welcome. But he will be ridden by the giant guy who jumped out of the cinema screen to sit on its back. I offer them some family, a vicar shows up, and then I’ve completed the task. Maxwell, who began this section dressed as cupid, but I augmented in a rejected clown suit from the first task, then runs up to collect his starite.

Adjectives play a strangely creepy role. Maybe it’s just me, but I find there to be something extremely sinister about clicking on a person, adding a word, and their entire personality changing. Sinister, but fun. So the bully who won’t let the kid get to school could be dealt with by having him eaten by a dragon, sucked into a black hole, or scared away by an angry lion. Or I can just go in and declare him a “friendly” bully, and all is fine. You can equally make someone scary, sleepy, bouncy (no, really) – mostly anything you can think of. Or you can use adjectives to transform their physical form too. Make that bully a “tiny” bully, and he’s no longer a threat.

So now I’m knocking down an old building with a mallet, then replacing it with a theme park, which causes the lady to bounce (yes, I made her bouncy) over to some people to invite them along, then I’m creating a jet plane for a pizza delivery guy who’s order is going cold, giving a chef the ingredients to bake a phoenix (the fiery bird) for a witch (a phoenix being a bird that, rather helpfully, cooks itself), then being bemused when a hungry vampire can’t be given blood. The game doesn’t know what blood is. But then a cannibal shows up at the restaurant, and when I give him another cannibal to eat, he chows down. It’s not squeamish – it’s just confusing.

And that’s the pattern. Being amazed, being amazed, being amazed, being disappointed, being amazed. Fortunately, however, when your excellent imagination means you completely break a scene (my attempts to put out an oven fire with a tidal wave rather upset some monsters in the basement), you can reset any location without losing any progress. This is a game about playing. This is a game where someone trapped in a freezer can be warmed up by creating a volcano. Or where you can find out who would win in a fight between Ceiling Cat and Long Cat.

It’s odd how far this fourth incarnation goes to present itself as a kids’ game. Because while it’s absolutely child friendly – and frankly I cannot think of a better way to encourage a child with their spelling – the challenges are often worded in a way that a young kid would struggle with, or even deal with concepts that would be alien to them. There’s nothing inappropriate at all, but why should a kid know what to take on a date, for instance? Nor get half the jokes that are in there. Don’t be put off by the extremely childish opening – once you’re in, you’ll rarely be challenged by the difficulty, but you’ll have an extraordinary amount of fun if you invest. That’s the thing about this – it’s a game that rewards you for what you put in. Literally. Type in something inspired, and you’ll see inspired things happen. Type in the obvious and you’ll see obvious things happen. The key factor is your imagination. That’s bloody brilliant.

You’ll likely blow through the set puzzles in the game in just a couple of days, but of course you’re still left with this incredible canvas for your own fun. You can absolutely ignore everything in the scene, or indeed have them eaten by a bear, and then just set up your own scenes. Who will win in a fight between a killer dragon and God, in a primary school? I just did that. God wins. The children were collateral damage.

And more importantly, the PC version is integrated with Steamworks, and allows you to edit any interactive object in the game. Really, anything. A school desk can be augmented with a human head instead of a chair back, wheels added, an elephant trunk out the front, with a zombie head on the desk surface. You can then rename this, tell the game it is alive, and even tell it what thing it behaves like. My desk monster is going to behave like a lion, with the weight of a buffalo, that has a nuclear explosion (you choose the type of explosion) when it encounters fire. I’ve given it a weapon type – a gun whose bullet type I’ve told to be “cow”. You can then define how it moves, flies and swims, what equipment it’s capable of using, add unique behaviours, and even construct scripted actions for particular situations. Give it a name, and then you can create it at any time. (God just killed my Desk Monster when I augmented it to be angry.) You can then upload it to Steamworks, having selected appropriate tags, and of course download other people’s creations. Like the machine-gun-toting alligator I’ve just seen there, or the oh-so Steam appropriate stack of three hats. Naturally people have also created all the TF2 characters.

This Steamworks addition is the masterstroke. Sure, it’s disappointing when the game has something missing, when an idea doesn’t work. But now you can go look for one, or just build your own, give it the behaviours you want, and then it’s part of the game. I really hope what we’ll eventually see is massive user-made add-on packs to fill in the gaps left by the developers, allowing Scribblenauts Unlimited to really earn its name, as a community creates every object ever in the way a single studio never could.

Which of course is all predicated for most of the world on the game actually coming out outside of America. Which it hasn’t. And for which we’ve found a peculiar, elusive lack of reasoning. I really hope they sort out whatever nonsense is going on, because Scribblenauts Unlimited is a gorgeous thing. It’s so silly at its heart, and so dense with easy-unless-you-make-them-more challenges, and such a joyful playground. Americans – lap this up. Australia, be patient, you’ve got a week. Europeans, direct your glares toward Warner Bros.

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Who am I?

John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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